Once in awhile, I come across a great movie, entirely by accident.
If you’ve ever watched The Accountant, Ben Affleck portrays a man who suffers from autism.
His particular form of autism makes him especially sensitive to loud noise and bright, strobing lights- as well as physical touch, and to situations in which he cannot “complete” a task, like a puzzle with a missing piece.
When his military father learns of his son’s condition, he angrily rejects the suggestion that he should remove these uncomfortable things from his son’s world.
“My son does not need to be protected from those things. He needs more of them.”
His father proceeds to create ** a daily regimen, in which his son has regular, managed exposure to these uncomfortable experiences. Rather than "protect" his son from his own emotional reactions, he makes certain that his son experiences them daily. This way, he can become familiar with the sensations, learn to embrace them, and to respond to his emotions in more useful ways.
It works, brilliantly.
Affleck's character grows through those discomforts and learn to cope with the real world effectively. As he grows into a man, he takes over this regimen for himself, and continues to intentionally and consistently expose himself to these uncomfortable things.
Just like we'd go to the gym to keep our muscles strong, he has his daily psychological routine to keep his mental health and strength in peak condition.
The end result?
Whereas others with his level of autism were relegated to a lifetime of supervised care, he becomes fully self-sufficient. He develops into a very capable adult, free to live a normal life.
Even more, he's able to fully able to embrace certain gifts of his autistic condition- a savant-like mathematical ability, and incredible awareness of detail- without the downsides of feeling overwhelmed by the minutiae of everyday life.
Building a Better You
Of course, life is not a movie... but, I like this movie - because the psychological principles depicted here are very real.
In psychology, this practice is known as exposure therapy, and it's a critical part of expanding your comfort zone. In casual language, the term hardening is becoming popular.
Exposure therapy emphasizes exposure to a specific uncomfortable thing, to expand your tolerance for it, and eventually develop comfort with that situation.
Someone with social anxiety would be exposed to people and social situations. Someone with a phobia, such as tight spaces, spiders, or heights, would be exposed gradually to those things until they no longer trigger anxiety.
Hardening commonly refers to the more general practice of developing psychological strength & maturity in relation to your own emotions. It doesn't matter specifically which things you find uncomfortable- your goal is to become more comfortable everywhere, so that nothing holds you back.
Hardening is also distinguished by the fact that it more directly embraces exposure to uncomfortable sensations as part of the practice. Because under the hood, sensations and emotions are two sides of the same coin.
But whichever terms and perspectives you favor-
Finding your weaknesses and hunting them down is something I fully encourage.
Adapt, or Die
On my desk, I have a basil plant. It sits in a small planter cup, which sits at the top of a much larger and taller water vase. I fill the vase occasionally, so that the water level immerses the planter cup- and the water is absorbed into the soil, through the small holes in the bottom of the cup.
Sometimes, I get busy for a few days, and I forget to add water to the vase. Quickly, I see the water level descend beneath the cup, where it cannot be absorbed into the planter cup’s soil.
You’d think the basil would quickly wither, as soon as its water supply was gone- but it doesn’t. The basil grows roots that descend beneath the planter cup, to reach the water level below. And it grows them fast. It extends those roots as quickly as the water descends.
If a plant has any sensations or experiences similar to animal life, I’ve no doubt it feels some form of discomfort. This situation is a form of stress, which provokes the plant to grow, meet the challenge it’s facing, and adapt through it.
The same is true for you and me.
How Growth Happens
Working as a coach means that I'm constantly surrounded by people who want to change. Perhaps they want to improve their social skills, or to overcome a barrier like stage fright. Maybe they want to build better relationships or career skills.
Some people want a better level of physical fitness- with a tighter, stronger and healthier body. Or perhaps they want have better reactions to their own emotions, and a greater sense of intuition, and empathy.
All of these things require change.
But here's the thing...
No matter how hard you try, you can’t change yourself. You can't reach into your head and change a single neural pathway, or increase the size of your bicep by a single centimeter.
What you can do- like all living things- is adapt.
Change your environment to something that challenges you, and your body and mind will adapt to make it easier and more comfortable.
This is as just as true with psychological change, as it is with physical change.
You may have heard the term “hormetic effect,” which describes the positive impact that certain levels of stress can have on an organism...
They make you stronger.
Why Would You Do This?
To someone on the outside, hardening looks painful.
They see Wim Hof and David Goggins engaging in practices that would make most of us shudder and weep.
But discomfort is not bad. It’s all about your mind and body resisting change.
Hardening is not abusive, any more than going for a run, or working out at the gym is. It's all about caring for yourself, strengthening yourself, and growing yourself.
Hardening is an act of deep self-respect, self-esteem, and self-love.
Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor.
- Alexis Carrell ( France 1873 - 1944 )
The point of hardening is the immense rewards it gives, on two levels.
The Specific Reward
First, you become stronger in the specific areas of hardening you are engaging in.
- I performed on stage for years, to overcome stage fright. Now the stage feels comfortable, and even fun.
- I practiced talking to strangers daily to overcome social anxiety, and had the same experience.
- I take cold showers daily, which has the benefit that I really never feel cold.
In each of these areas, with consistent practice, the challenge diminishes rapidly. Soon the discomfort reduces until all I can see is the positive benefits of each experience. Each experience becomes easy, and fun- and I have to make them more challenging if I want to grow more.
The General Reward
But there's a second and even greater reward as well.
As you practice hardening, you become more tolerant in general of uncomfortable emotions and sensations. You simply find uncomfortable things less uncomfortable.
Cold showers has nothing at all to do with chasing down corporate clients for past-due invoices- but it benefits you anyway. The general emotional hardening of cold showers benefits me in that I feel less uncomfortable with other emotionally challenging things, too.
Where do you start?
At the macro level, hardening is incredibly simple. I have 3 simple rules-
- Make it uncomfortable. Discomfort is your best indicator that you are in a place that will create change. If you are comfortable, change will not occur. Discomfort is also a very personal thing- you might not suffer from stage fright- but you might fear rejection. On a scale of 1 to 10, aim for an intensity of 4 to 8.
- Make it safe. The goal is not to harm yourself, or to risk your life, or your health. A certain amount of risk is acceptable- nothing is possible without it. But be wise in your choices. Confronting fear does not mean you have to fight bears.
- Expose yourself consistently. People often fail here. You cannot go to the gym once a month and expect to see any change. Your hardening approach needs to be accessible, something that you can easily do every day in your life.
Those are the general principles. As long as you're focused on those, you'll see change and growth in your world.
But let's talk about some specific hardening practices you can do.
Types of Hardening
Here are some of my favorite ways of hardening. They’re all very accessible, and cost next to nothing.
Like most things relating to psychology, I like to look at hardening in the context of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and the triune brain.
Discomfort describes emotion, so it's useful to understand which part of your brain is generating those emotions of discomfort, and why.
"Reptile Brain" Hardening
The reptile brain prioritizes survival.
It’s concerned with anything that it imagines could be a threat to your life. It also prioritizes sex, for the purposes of survival of the species.
Here are some thing that will create discomfort in your reptilian brain.
- Cold, as in cold showers, ice swims, or cryotherapy
- Heat, like a sauna
- Fasting. Intermittent fasting, or full-on water-only fasting.
- Hard exercise. Your reptile brain favors laziness, since that conserves calories.
- Sexual abstinence. This might mean no sex of any form, or if you have a regular porn habit, it might mean "NoPMO," eliminating the porn from your world.
For some, there are other habits and addictions that may relate-
- Cut alcohol, tobacco, or sugar. Something that would challenge you personally.
"Mammal Brain" Hardening
Your mammal brain prioritizes anything related to social connection, and relationships.
Here we see a bit more individual variety in what creates discomfort.
- Being alone- if you are an extrovert
- Being in social situations- if you are an introvert
- Rejection therapy, including public speaking, stage performing, nude modeling, and so on
- Talking to strangers.
- Expressing attraction.
"Rational Brain" Hardening
Here we get even more abstract, and individualized. The rational brain is largely non-emotional, so discomfort takes different forms.
- Challenging your identity and sense of self, by doing things that are out of character for you.
- Breaking your echo chambers, by exposing yourself to new ideas and environments.
- Intense, prolonged meditation
- Staring in a mirror at yourself daily, for minutes a day
- Difficult intellectual challenges, such as playing chess or Go. Solving lateral thinking or logic problems.
- Watching videos of yourself. For many, this evokes cringey feelings.
Designing Your Own Hardening Program
Grab a piece of paper. You’re about to design your own hardening gym.
What things do you find uncomfortable? Looking at the list above, are there some things that rate fairly strongly on your discomfort scale?
Write those down.
Identify the ones that are accessible to you, and prioritize those that you feel hold you back from what you want in life.
Practice, every single day
Pick one or two key hardening practices to begin with.
Every day, you must commit to practicing these things. Expose yourself a bit each day- enough to be uncomfortable, but not enough to traumatize yourself. Remember your goal is growth, not self-abuse.
If you are consistent, you will see change quickly.
It's a transformative experience.
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** Having said that, this is not an article about parenting styles. I would have to think long and hard before I suggested that parents should create a regimen of discomfort for their kids. Sure there’s probably value- but ideally, we each choose the path of growth for ourselves, and not force it on others.
However, in the case of the movie, I think that the father probably made a wise choice here. In the same way that painful physical rehabilitation is needed after an injury, his son needed a fairly intensive psychological regimen in order to overcome his barriers, and to make a functioning life possible.